The concept of using extremophytes to improve food security – either as crops themselves or as sources of genes to improve other crops – is not really new. It’s been around for more than 25 years. And while it is not “main stream”, it should be. Climate change is not predicted to make agriculture easier anywhere, while drought, salinity and population growth will make the problems of food security much greater in much of the world.
One factor necessary to pull extremophytes to the center of the stream is increasing awareness of their potential for increasing food plant stress tolerance, especially tolerance to salt and drought stress.
More than most, Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is contributing to this effort. Prof. Farrant researches South African resurrection plants, the fascinating but little recognized group of plants that desiccate under extreme drought, but survive. With a mere soupçon of moisture (or irrigation), they transform back to clearly living plants, i.e. they “resurrect”. Jill’s thesis is that if we can understand how this happens, and in particular their natural preservation mechanisms and key “protectants”, we might use the knowledge to develop more drought-tolerant crops. Indeed, her research may even have medical applications, in which case all in the plant biology community might profit.
Prof. Farrant has received numerous awards for her research and for her education/outreach activities. In 2012, she was the African/Arab States recipient of the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, one of five selected worldwide as “researchers who will have a major impact on society and help light the way to the future.” In 2009, she was the first woman researcher at UCT awarded an A-rating by the National Research Foundation, a rating that designates top quality, high impact researchers unequivocally recognized by their peers as leading international scholars.
But more than all that, Farrant is spreading the word about extremophytes in public settings, not least of which is the TED Talks platform. (For more information on TED Talks in general, visit TED.com).
If you haven’t yet seen her talk, here it is (shared under the Creative Commons License from TED.com). And while your are at it or if you would rather read than watch, check out Lucas Laursen’s summary and analysis of the talk. And for more examples of Prof. Farrant’s outreach activities, check out her own web site.